09 January 2014
Starlite, the nuclear blast-defying plastic that could change the world
Two decades ago amateur scientist Maurice Ward invented a material that could resist the force of 75 Hiroshimas. So why haven't we all heard about it?
A square of the heat-resistant plastic Starlite, complete with charring from nuclear testing
The gentleman feels for something in his jacket pocket. It's a nice suit, and it is accompanied by a suitably gentlemanly bow-tie. The effect is sartorially unusual but not too much. What will come out of the pocket, though, is more than unusual. It is unparalleled and almost unbelievable. 'Here,' says Maurice Ward, handing over a creamy small square. 'That's Starlite.' It's a piece of plastic that bends in all directions, with a charred mark the size of a coin on one side. 'That's from the nuclear blast,' says Ward. 'Don't worry, there's no nuclear stuff on it. I wouldn't have given it to you otherwise.'
Maurice Ward, inventor of Starlite
It feels and looks like nothing much, but holding this nondescript piece of plastic would be, to the world's defence and scientific community, somewhat of a privilege. Starlite, invented by the white-bearded, suited Ward, has been described as astonishing; impossible; miraculous. It has changed assumptions about thermodynamics and physics. It can resist temperatures that would melt diamonds, threefold. 'If it is what it seems,' says Toby Greenbury, a partner at law firm Mischon de Reya and Ward's lawyer for 20 years, 'it will be of enormous benefit to mankind. It's very difficult to think of another invention that is bigger in its implications.' As a fire-retardant, thermal barrier or heat-resistant coating, Starlite could change the world. Except that it hasn't, and that's as much of a mystery as the secret, unheard of properties of the material Ward invented 23 years ago.
At the time, Ward and his family, his wife Eileen and four daughters, ran a small plastics business. It was a departure from the family trade, which was ladies' hairdressing, with Ward mixing hair products and dyes himself. They'd come from all over the north for his colouring skills, he says. 'My heads couldn't be copied. What L'Oreal and Garnier are doing today, I was doing 50 years ago. And they still haven't got it right.'
His happy tinkering would stand him in good stead when hairdressing lost its appeal. In the early Eighties, Ward, with his canny eye for a good business deal, bought an extruder, a system for manufacturing plastic cross-sections, from ICI. It was a huge thing and took up too much space to be attractive to most buyers, but Ward thought it a bargain, installed it in his factory, and got tinkering. At this point the tale gets a bit confused. Ward is 76, after all, and his chronology isn't always chronological. But after something to do with ICI wanting a plastic for Citroen bonnets, Ward ended up with a failed extruded material that came out as scraps. We granulated it, stuck it in a bin and left it there. That was that, until August 22 1985, when a British Airtours plane on the way to Corfu failed to take off at Manchester Airport and caught fire. For Ward, it was life-changing. 'It interested me because it was an air disaster on the ground, and because it was the smoke and toxicity that killed people, not the fire. Fifty-five people died in 40 seconds. We thought we'd like to find something that doesn't burn very much, that would be useful.'
Ward began making up teaspoonfuls of 'stuff' in a food mixer. He christened the material 'gubbins,' and mixed and blended and mixed and blended some more: 'I was making up to 20 formulations a day.' Eventually, he got a few he liked, extruded them into sheet form and tested them with a blowtorch. 'I just thought, "well it's better than we ever expected. It's better than it needs to be."'
It was better than better. The piece of gubbins had resisted 2,500 C of heat aimed at it by the torch, and stayed cool enough to touch. Other experiments, holding a torched piece of gubbins up to the face; holding up a sheet with a hand behind it, produced similar results. Ward, a completely untrained amateur inventor, seemed to have invented a material that resisted heat and also cooled it. If it was for real, it was the best thermal barrier the world had yet seen, and its possibilities were limitless. Fire-resistant uniforms; better fire doors; safer furniture. Laser-resistant tanks and weaponry; more efficient missile nose cones. It could coat launch sites for vertical take-off aircraft and spacecraft. So this, thought the Wards, was it. Chemical companies would batter down their doors in desperation to license the invention, they would be wildly wealthy, and more importantly, the world, with this new, stunningly efficient fire retardant, would be a safer place for everyone. And nothing happened. There were tests carried out at ICI by a contact in one of the labs, in which the still unnamed material passed the UL94 (VO) test, involving a calibrated Bunsen burner flame, with ease. Ward thought then that 'if it were in ICI labs right now it'd be worth 10 million quid.' But talks fell through. 'I know now it's because they were working on Victrex,' says Ward, inviting me to look it up. (It's a 'high-performance thermoplastic', but not revolutionary.) Derision was also a factor. Ward has often been compared to the northern factory worker played by Alec Guinness in the 1951 film The Man in the White Suit. Guinness invents a material which repels dirt, and no one takes him seriously. Ward could sympathise. 'They laughed at me at first. But they take me seriously now.'
At this point the chronology falters again. There were talks with British Aerospace, set up by 'a guy called Fred'. There were other talks with 'guys from a big international company'. I want more details, but there are none: Ward is expansive and unfailingly courtly, but can be elusive. He's 'a true English eccentric', the defence journalist Pamela Pohling-Brown wrote of him recently. Perhaps that's why our meeting takes place in the slightly odd surroundings of a meeting room in a Hartlepool primary school, along with the soundtrack of children playing and a fire alarm to add excitement. Perhaps that's also why he decided to call his product Starlite, because his eight-year-old granddaughter thought it was a good name.
The talks collapsed, but other talk continued to circulate, reaching the studios of Tomorrow's World. In early 1990, presenter Peter McCann introduced viewers to Starlite by means of an egg. Ward shows me the first videoed test of the oxyacetylene torch meeting a Starlite-coated hen's egg. Not only did a Starlite coating prevent the egg from combusting, it was also an astonishingly efficient insulator, as McCann demonstrated by cracking the egg, after five minutes of it being torched, to reveal a completely raw yolk. There are other thermal barriers, the presenter said, but none that resist heat and yet give off no toxic fumes, and can be easily moulded.
The defence establishment was watching. In July that year, Ward was invited to the British Atomic Weapons Establishment at Foulness, and the egg went nuclear. 'They'd been trying to get something to withstand a nuclear flash for 45 years, and we did it in five minutes.' Ward was reluctant to take part at first. 'I was happy with my egg. It was just a challenge and I didn't want to lose.' This was a different league. Starlite-coated eggs were subjected to light-energy sources that simulated a nuclear flash, equivalent to a temperature of 10,000 C. 'They did it twice and it was still there. Charred, but intact.' The Foulness equipment couldn't keep up. 'I said to one scientist, "Are we doing all right?", and he burst out laughing. He said, "Normally, we do a test every couple of hours because we have to wait for it to cool down. We're doing it every 10 minutes, and it's sat there laughing at us."' Most materials vaporise beyond 2,000 C. Pure carbon, which has the highest melting point of all elements, melts at 3,500 C. Starlite was withstanding temperatures and forces that physics and thermodynamics dictated it shouldn't. Even with tests from unquestionable authorities like AWE, people were sceptical. 'Some people called me a shyster. But they are blinkered. We've got video: We can show you.'
In tests at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, Starlite was pulsed with lasers that would normally have burned through polymer. Instead, as Pohling-Brown reported in a widely-read article in International Defence Review in 1993, 'Starlite showed little damage to the surface, merely small pits with the approximate diameter of the beam and with little evidence of melting.' Professor Keith Lewis, who led the RSRE tests, confirms that Starlite 'had unique properties which appeared to be very different to other forms of thermal barrier material available at the time.' It wasn't clear how Starlite worked: was it diffusing the heat? Absorbing it? Repelling it? 'Keith Lewis told me that it does all sorts of things,' says Ward. 'It's very complex. Millions of things are happening all at once.' After that, the phones never stopped ringing. Ward may have been a canny businessman, but the thousands of aspiring investors were overwhelming. Greenbury came on board, and Ward 'separated the men from the boys' by insisting on a confidentiality agreement and £8,000 paid upfront. Keeping the formula secret was paramount, to the point of refusing to patent it. 'Everyone said they would invest and could they have a sample. No, they couldn't.' Visitors to the factory were deliberately diverted from Starlite by loads of other material left lying around. The formula was known only by Ward and his immediate family, though Pohling-Brown reported that it included 'up to 21 organic polymers and copolymers, and small quantities of ceramics'. 'It was put about that we never wrote it down but that's not true. I just didn't tell anybody.'
In fact, Ward let a sample out of his sight only once. In June 1991, a sample was sent to White Sands atomic weapons testing site in New Mexico, in the care of the SAS, and subjected to a simulated nuclear onslaught. 'It was classed as the biggest bang in town. I've seen a video [on which] it shredded forest to sawdust, rolled some tanks around, stripped an aircraft into pieces.' But Starlite survived. Further tests at Foulness had subjected it to the force of 75 Hiroshimas, and it survived that, too. NASA publicly raved about its potential, with spokesman Rudi Narangor revealing that 'We have done a lot of evaluation and, we know all the tremendous possibilities that this material has.' And yet still no agreement was signed. 'Maurice,' says Greenbury, 'is a one-man band. He's an inventor, and he has an unusual way of looking at things. It has proved to be very difficult to deal with large companies. There hasn't been a meeting of minds.'
Ward's conditions were unusual. He wouldn't sign confidentiality agreements, which made government and defence companies uncooperative. In joint ventures, he insisted on keeping 51 per cent. 'If they'd wanted to buy it outright, they could have had it. But they always wanted a licence, and if they wanted that they had to sign an agreement that says they won't plagiarise or reverse engineer. If they don't sign that, they get a sample and then they reverse engineer and why would they bother to get a licence?' This was why NASA never signed up. It's why BAE didn't, or Boeing, or the dozens of other corporations and military establishments who got somewhere in negotiations but never to the end.
'Maurice's concern about confidentiality is a legitimate concern,' says Greenbury. Ward claims that two samples have been stolen, and countless attempts made. His talk might sound paranoid, a newspaper article that was 'squashed by the government'; a computer hack that removed documents from his computer; break-ins at his office, but the stakes were high enough for such claims to be believable. Greenbury, the sober lawyer, thinks 'some people might have been enormously tempted to find out the secret.'
But Greenbury also thinks that Starlite's potential has been, so far, its biggest handicap. 'It's difficult to think of another invention that is bigger in its implications. If it had been less important, I think it would have been much easier.' Ward certainly believes in his product, claiming publicly that it could have prevented the space shuttle disasters. 'Starlite has a Q-value [an energy absorption rating] of 2,470. The space shuttle tiles have a Q-value of 1.' Not only that, but because Starlite is so lightweight, 1mm thick, compared to 75mm for the space tiles, it's actually '2,470 x 75 times better'.
For Greenbury, the past few years have been Ward's wilderness ones. Publicity stopped when Ward entered into talks with Boeing in the late Nineties (and, according to Ward, involved researching using Starlite to protect Air Force One from a nuclear flash). They were almost successful. Contracts were drawn up, though no figures were written down. 'They used x and y on the documents, but figures were being bandied about of between a hundred million and half a billion.' (Greenbury, when asked to put a price on Starlite, thinks it 'incalculable'.) Negotiations collapsed, says Ward, because Boeing got into trouble (there were accusations of industrial espionage and the CEO was forced to resign). He surfaced from Boeing to find that no one was knocking on his door any more. 'Boeing asked us not to talk to anybody else. It was a huge mistake, because it stopped all the opposition coming to us, too.' He sounds resigned, 'It's quite a tale of woe, isn't it?', but also somewhat a changed man.
The secrecy will ease, up to a point. He will apply for patents, for a start. His rigid business practices have also softened, he says. Now he just wants to market it. 'We were used to selling a ton of this here and there. But this got too big for us.' Now, he's keeping things simple. There is still secrecy, in the form of ongoing negotiations with an Indian company to make an unnamed product (according to Greenbury) and with an airline manufacturer (according to Ward). There is still invention, in the form of a hollow-core Starlite-coated fire-door which weighs 25kg, compared to the usual 70-80kg: 'And it doesn't leak halogens all the time, like most doors.' His concrete plans aren't grand, he wants to get a local manufacturer to make the doors, but the door might be grander, being a response to criticism that his invention is so profoundly important, he should have given it to the world long ago. 'A lot of people have been saying that I'm a rotten prat and that I'm greedy and I should give it to the world.' Other critics have objected to his talks with defence companies. 'That's one of the reasons I've tried to stay keeping hold of things. I've said it often enough that we'd like to give protection but not to cause devastation.'
Ward promises great things are imminent. His website is still a one-page affair bearing a picture of his granddaughter harness-racing 'because I liked the picture'. But he's now posting test results and videos on a new blog. There are talks under way with an unnamed major aircraft manufacturer, and Greenbury is hopeful that the Indian negotiations will actually succeed. 'After 20 years, perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but I would really like to see this commercialised in Maurice's lifetime.'
In the small meeting room in that Hartlepool primary school, Ward asks if he's told me enough. He phones later, asking if I have more questions (and worries that President Obama is at risk because he doesn't have Starlite on Air Force One). He wants to get his story across, again, despite the wilderness years. He's not bitter. 'We just followed a route. It was all going to happen.' He's back to working on new Starlite formulations. There will be more tests, more news, more publicity, he says. 'The interest is there,' he says, 'and growing.' And with that, he drives me to the station in a modest car, a man in a blue suit who could still change the world, one Starlite-coated egg at a time.